No performer before the public today is as personally associated with a role as the great Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel is with Sir John Falstaff. Heard in Verdi’s Falstaff at the Royal Opera House on July 19, the voice’s purring, matter-of-fact gruffness builds on a rugby player’s physique to deliver one of the most authentic portrayals of any character in the repertoire. Sir Bryn has simply inhabited the role of Sir John from his first essays, but after years of immersion in its comic Shakespearean depths, the sheer reality leaps from the stage. The performance reviewed here was iconic in the best sense—it is difficult to imagine any peer performing it so well.

Verdi called Shakespeare his favorite dramatist and produced three operas drawn from his plays. The early Macbeth (1847) portended the dramatic innovations that both anticipated cinema and made opera more cinematic, but higher expressions came decades later, in Otello (1887) and, in Verdi’s swan song, Falstaff (1893). Its inspiration, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, was a romantic sequel to Falstaff’s appearances as a corpulent but jovially drunken womanizer in both parts of Henry IV. Queen Elizabeth I allegedly wanted to see the roguish Sir John in love, so Shakespeare made him the victim of a comedy in which his romantic ego causes his undoing. Hard up for cash, but always up for a good shag, he tries to seduce a pair of friends, the merchant wives Meg Page and Alice Ford, by sending them the same love letter declaring his affections. Helped by the scheming Mistress Quickly, they lure him into a trap from which his only escape is being thrown out a window in a basket of dirty laundry into the Thames. Enjoying their triumph, they repeat it by luring the humiliated Falstaff into Windsor’s Royal Park at night, where he is mocked and tormented by a crowd of townspeople dressed up as spirits and demons. The scene yields to a festive wedding ceremony in which the merry wives outfox Alice’s jealous husband, Ford, and unite the Fords’s daughter, Nannetta, with her amour Fenton, whom Ford had rejected as a suitor. The opera concludes with a vast feast, to which Falstaff is welcomed with good humor. He even gets the last word, leading the whole cast in a fugue that tells the audience that all the world is folly.

Verdi intuited that villains and antiheroes are often more psychologically alluring characters than protagonists and heroes . . . 

Verdi intuited that villains and antiheroes are often more psychologically alluring characters than protagonists and heroes (he nearly called his operatic adaptation of Othello “Iago,” after the deceitful antagonist who causes such delicious mayhem), so instead of emphasizing the bourgeois propriety of the wives and their mercantile milieu, we are meant to identify with the fat knight of the opera’s title. For that reason, Verdi intentionally included some of Falstaff’s speeches from Henry IV. They include the “Honor Monologue,” a self-serving expatiation on the concept’s material hollowness tempered by the ironically prescient observation that it causes pride, invites flattery, and often facilitates betrayal. Falstaff then spends the rest of the opera falling victim to precisely those failings.

Marie McLaughlin, Anna Prohaska,  Ana María Martínez, and  Marie-Nicole Lemieux in Falstaff. Photo: Catherine Ashmore. 

Even in the story’s fifteenth-century setting, there was an ironic paradox contraposing the impoverished gentry with rich merchants—a bourgeoisie that seemed always to be “rising” no matter what historical period is under discussion. The director Robert Carsen—whose production is shared with the Metropolitan Opera, the Netherlands Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company, and which also appeared at La Scala—seized onto this dichotomy to place the opera in a run-down 1950s Britain, a time when the loss of empire, continuing economic woes, and the impositions of dour egalitarianism threatened the traditional British upper classes with the closest thing they ever experienced to extinction. Evoking London’s enduring private clubs, the opera’s Garter Inn is a dark wood and leather haunt of its avatars, including Falstaff, who makes his entrance sprawled in a vast bed surrounded by room service trolleys for devoured meals he can no longer afford. He bumbles about in a dressing gown, firing potshots at the ceiling with a rifle, which brings plaster crashing to the floor. In his seductive mode he radiates supreme confidence despite his enormous size, changing between a natty tweed suit and full riding costume. His middle-class tormentors are prim and proper housewives who would not be out of place in Mad Men and who scheme in a spotless 1950s American-style kitchen. Our sympathies, however, remain with Falstaff, whose contradictions and attitudes, entitlements and disappointments, tell us far more about the human condition and, ultimately, about ourselves, than we would probably care to admit.

Falstaff’s central role belies the truth that Verdi’s opera is, in its best presentations, an ensemble piece. All of the other characters’ personalities bounce off Falstaff (sometimes literally), but the merry wives interact like they have been best friends from birth. The rising soprano Ana María Martínez does not have quite the right voice for Alice Ford, but she was nimble and radiated a dramatic persona that fit the part perfectly. Marie McLaughlin gave her very best as Meg Page. Just as Terfel owns the role of Falstaff, Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s throbbing low notes captured all of Mistress Quickly’s deceit in an act of miraculous casting. Anna Prohaska and Frédéric Antoun were in sync as the young lovers. Simon Keenlyside’s Ford was a bit stilted, but stilted enough to make one think the character would seriously have to worry about his wife’s fidelity. Nicola Luisotti explored the intricacies of the score in a way that drew its psychological as well as its musical complexities with perfect balance.

Bryn Terfel as Falstaff. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.